Review: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin – Book to Film

I probably discovered Winter’s Tale in college. It was published my freshman year, and I spent at least an hour a day in the campus bookstore, which, back then, was a respectable establishment. Not only could customers browse the stacks of textbooks themselves, rather than waiting for the staff to fetch them (which meant you had your pick of the lowest-priced used copy), but it was also a well-stocked retail bookstore as well. About the size of my local BooksAMillion, and with about the same ratio of swag to books. No music, though. For music, you had to walk down the Student Union hallway to the Record Coop. (That’s two syllables, if you were wondering. And yes, we all pronounced it as though it held chickens instead of records.)

I say I “probably discovered” it, because I didn’t read it until 2013. Rather, I didn’t read it. I listened to it. I happened to come across an unabridged reading on CD last year. I looked at the book often throughout the mid-Eighties, wondering if I should buy it, used or new. It did take its title from my favorite Shakespeare play, but, well, it was long (673 pages in hardcover) and it looked… literary. The wounds inflicted by my elders over the years of reading comic books and science fiction, when they suggested I should read something “worthy” or “meaningful,” something with “literary merit,” instead… those wounds were still raw. I avoided the literary.

So I never bought Winter’s Tale when I found it on used bookstore shelves for eight bucks. No, I waited to buy it until last year, after I’d listened to it and been fascinated, and it was nigh unto impossible to find a first edition hardcover copy at all, much less for eight bucks. I finally did track one down, book jacket intact (important to us OCD-recovering-librarian types) in case I wanted to read it, or someone I knew and trusted with my books wanted to read it.

And now I probably will read it, because you see, they made a film of it, as they are wont to do.

It wasn’t a bad film. It was one of those films I’ll need to see a few times to decide if I really liked it or not. It’s based on about 250 of those 675 pages, leaving out decades and characters, combining some characters in unlikely and unfortunate ways, and, fortunately, bypassing some material in the middle of the book through which I really zoned while I was listening.

Let me tackle the whole thing chronologically, which I can mostly do, because the film mostly follows the structure of the book. Mostly. It begins, unlike the novel, in present day. I didn’t like that, because it very quickly establishes the supernatural, time-traveling nature of the protagonist, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell.) In the book, despite his Superman-like origin, you come across Peter’s extra-human nature a bit more slowly, and you don’t know until he does that he’s going to vanish from the 19-teens and awaken at the dawn of the 21st Century. I liked having that development come as a surprise.

Still, there’s a coolness factor in the film’s opening: it’s set in the attic of Grand Central Station, where Peter apparently lived for a time. Holy crap, Grand Central Station has an attic? I didn’t know that! I don’t believe it’s mentioned in the book. Are there tours? (I’m madly in love with Grand Central Station, if you must know.) Anyway, we meet Peter Lake as he explores the attic, looks at relics of his childhood, and remembers his infancy(!) in 1895, and how his parents were turned away at Ellis Island because one of them had a pulmonary disease (we assume Tuberculosis), how they didn’t want their child to return to the old world (in the book, they know they will die in transit and he will arrive in Europe an orphan), and, finally, how his father carves out the innards of a model of the ship they’re sailing in, The City of Justice, and sets his infant son afloat in New York Harbor.

Cut to 1916, twenty-one years later, and adult Peter is on the run from Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) and his gang.

Big Omission Number 1: All of Peter’s childhood is gone. Maybe not a big loss to the story, but a huge loss to my own sense of wonder at it. You see, Peter, in the book, was raised by the Baymen of the Bayonne Marsh, essentially a group of American aborigines with their own unique language and character, who live in the shadow of the great city of New York. Peter lives with them until he’s twelve, and then ventures into the city, where he takes up with two itinerant dancing girls, lives with them for a time, and then joins up with the Short Tails, Pearly’s gang.

All of this is summed up by one stray line about singing and dancing for pay, and by a blink-and-you-miss-it scene in which Graham Greene appears as Humpstone John, the “Native American” who raised Peter and gives him some advice. It’s not enough of a tribute to the richness Helprin created with Peter’s back story in the novel. I put “Native American” in quotes for two reasons. One, as the descendant of Cherokees, I don’t like it. It’s inaccurate. Anyone born on the American continents is a native American. It’s no more correct, in fact, than “American Indian.” I don’t use either to describe my much-diluted ethnicity. I just say I’m part-Cherokee. An accident of birth, really. I have not explored the culture at all. Two, well, I guess the Baymen could have been descendants of indigenous peoples (yeah, hate that one too, but…), but they don’t read that way.

Back on track, Peter escapes Pearly on a magical white horse, Athansor (credited thus in the film, but never named) and then breaks into a mansion to rob it. He may have broken from Pearly, but thievery is his livelihood, after all. Here begins Peter’s romance with Beverly Penn, an occupant of the house, and a young woman dying of consumption. (Played by Jessica Brown Findlay, now on track with Jeffrey Dean Morgan to be Hollywood’s most-killed-off thespian. Her character died last season on Downton Abbey.)

So far off track you have to scream “What the hell?” Number one: Pearly is so angry that Peter has evaded capture (it’s never made ultra-clear what Peter did, other than break faith with him) that he goes to Grand Central Station to a secret section and asks to see The Judge. I’m not gonna spoil who plays The Judge for you. If you can’t wait, go to IMDB. I am going to spoil who The Judge really is, because that’s the “what the hell” factor. He’s Lucifer. Not “most beautiful of angels” Lucifer (though he’s a fine-looking man in his own right) but Satan, Beelzebub, the Devil. Pearly, It seems, is a demon. Yeah, absolutely none of that in the book. He finally gets The Judge to agree to let him battle Peter Lake on the mortal plane, and, if he wins, he’ll destroy Peter’s soul. If he loses, he dies the One True Death. (Can I get a “TM?” Say “TM” somebody. It should be trademarked. It’s so “True Blood” that no one else should be allowed to use it.)

This means that Pearly will live as long as Peter does, by definition, and he’s already a demon. So, when Peter journeys to the 21st Century, Pearly is still there, a cheap thug who just wants vengeance for… um… something… taking the place of the far more interesting…

Expurgated Character Number One – Jackson Mead, the bridge-builder who wanted to build a bridge to the Next World, thus bringing about the end of this one. Not that Russell Crowe didn’t play Pearly well, but Pearly was not intended to be the “Big Bad” of this story, and making him so, especially by making him a non-human, was a questionable choice.

Back on track, Beverly succumbs to her illness, but not before her little sister, Willa, builds a bed of roses for her to die on, hoping that, Sleeping Beauty style, Peter will be able to raise the dead with a lover’s kiss. It doesn’t work. The bed of roses schtick is also no in the book. What is in the book is…

Expurgated Character Number Two – Harry Penn, who grows up to become editor of the newspaper which is important to the second half (in the film, second three quarters of the book.) He’s Beverly’s little brother. He’s replaced in the film by his sister Willa, who isn’t a major played in the book. This costs the story some of its original texture, but gifts the movie with the performance of Eva Marie Saint as Old Willa, now a respected editor. (And, yeah, chronologically about 106, but it’s Eva Marie Saint, so let’s not quibble.)

And then Pearly catches up with Peter, and threatens him with certain death. But Peter and Athansor escape and jump forward in time.

Big Omission Number Two. Now, in the book, we get an entire section, almost two hundred pages, of story before Peter returns. This follows Harry Penn, his employee Prager DePinto, who becomes Mayor of New York, Mrs. Gamely, who, as a child, took a magical sleigh ride with Peter, her daughter Virignia and Hardesty Marratta, who falls in love with said daughter. All of this is set in the years prior to the turn of the Millennium. This is the point in the book where I zoned, and I found that, with Peter absent from the story, I lost focus. I won’t say it lost focus, but I did. I have a notoriously short attention span.

Peter awakens in 2014, and, amnesiac, tries to suss out his past. He remembers Grand Central Station. Almost blindly, he stumbles to the attic where he lived as a thief, and he finds clues which lead him to do research at the New York Sun in an effort to find what are these things he doesn’t recall. In the research library there he meets Virginia, a food columnist. She helps him us the “microfiche” (It was microfilm. A minor point, but so easy to get right…) to find photos of Beverly, her family and herself. Apparently, the Penns owned 5.0 MegaPixel Brownie, ‘cause these shots were amazing, even reproduced from newsprint on micro-whatever-it-was.

At this point, I can’t even really speak in terms of omissions. Aside from the fact that both Virignias have sick daughters named Abbey, whom Peter must attempt to save, they are essentially totally different characters. The book’s entire plot about Jackson Mead’s attempts to build a rainbow bridge, and Hardesty Marratta’s quest for the perfect city, are replaced with Pearly’s eternal quest to kill Peter and thwart his attempts to use his miracle (apparently we all get one) to save Abbey, cause… uh… demons don’t like miracles.

If I sound a bit flippant, it’s not out of disrespect for the creative efforts of either the book or the film. The first 200 or so pages of the book are lyrical and beautiful, almost perfect. The rest… well, the prose is always lyrical, but the subject not always so much. It’s a complex plot, and you can get lost in it. But I will read it again some day, and see if I can better find my way through it. It’s a book that’s worth it.

The film I also want to experience a few more times. There’s a lot to love, especially a great cast and some beautiful cinematography. I think the key is to accept that the film is “inspired” by the book. It sticks close in story to the best parts, and goes off in its own direction where the book was, perhaps, unsuited for adaptation to a two-hour format.

Overall, I recommend both. Not even in any particular order. This is one of those films that might just whet your appetite for the main course that is the novel. On the other hand, if you’re looking for Satan and lots of demons, you might want to just see the movie.

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